Podcasting, vidcasting, vodcasting or whatever you call it, the Internet
Podcasting, vidcasting, vodcasting or whatever you call it, the Internet "broadcast" is upon us. Last issue, we showed you how to plan your vidcast; now we'll show you the gear and skills you need to pull it off.
We laid the foundation of planning the production of your own vidcast in our March issue. This month, we'll be digging into the details of set design, talent and crew, and equipment. There's a lot to cover, so let's get right to it.
Don't let the term "set design" scare you. It can mean anything from creating plans and using power tools to dragging a beat-up couch into position. One of the first things to consider is if there is a way to include the theme of your subject matter in the set. Let's say you are developing a show on the small world of scale trains; integrating a train motif into your set design would make sense. This might include rustic old train signal lanterns or railroad crossing signs. If you are putting together a set for a genealogy show, you could populate tables and walls with a large assortment of family photos to create a sense of hominess. You get the picture.
How much room will you have for your set? If you are going to turn your garage or living room into a makeshift studio, will you be able to leave it in place or will it need to be set up for each show? If you are handy at woodworking, create set pieces out of easily collapsible components that stack or fold. Also, try to estimate how many people will be on your set at one time and design for that size. Will you be using props or displaying odd-sized objects? If so, how many and how large will they be? Give it your best guess and have a table or flat area that will provide enough room. A virtual set might be a good solution if you're in a small apartment or cleaning the garage would take too long. It does require a little more technical finessing, especially in post, but a simple chromakey background and some pre-built virtual sets will make the most of your limited space. Remember that, while the Mini DV format may not produce results as pleasing as professional formats such as Betacam, if you light well, it can be very acceptable.
If you survey current vidcasts, you'll see some very Spartan sets, so don't get bogged down here. Simply set up your camcorder on a tripod and hook up the output to a TV or monitor, so you can easily adjust the placement of your set elements the way they look the best in relation to the framing of your main camcorder. Note these locations and, if you do need to break down after each episode, place gaffer's tape on the floor to mark table, chair and other set object positions for quick placement next time.
Talent and Crew
Who is going to be in front of and behind the camera? It is certainly possible to do it all yourself by locking down your cameras, but you'll be able to include higher production value elements, like camera and even talent movement, if you have at least one camera operator. As you get more people to serve as crew members, you may want to add the following positions, in roughly this order:
1. Camera B operator - This will be the closeup camera on talent and props. Camera A is your main shot and is locked down.
2. Audio person - Having a separate person concentrating on just audio can save you a great deal of pain in post.
3. Camera A operator - Having two cameras that can move gives you much greater flexibility; however, it also requires more coordination and advance planning.
4. Director/Floor director - If you have a second camera operator, a floor director will coordinate camera movement and provide cues to your talent.
A refreshing difference between vidcasts and broadcast television is that the people in front of the camera don't need to be professionally trained "talent." In fact, it's more important that they (or you) are passionate about the subject and that this passion comes across in your show. How you do this will be up to you and the time you want to put into your production. Depending on the target length of your show and the expertise of your talent, ad libbing may be perfectly fine. If, however, you have several key subject areas to cover, you should at least create a one-page outline that they can rest in their laps or on the table. This type of casual approach is the norm for current vidcasts, but some producers are finding low-cost teleprompters add another level of professionalism to their shows.
There's a good chance you already have all the equipment you need to shoot your vidcast. The bare bones include just a camcorder, a sturdy tripod, a microphone and probably a few lights. But let's look at each in more detail. Your camcorder should have, at a minimum, the following three features:
1. A mic input (preferably an XLR connection).
2. Manual exposure control. If you light your set dramatically (hard light sources throwing dramatic shadowing), or if your background is mostly dark, automatic exposure control will likely overexpose your subject.
3. Manual focus. You'll be supremely frustrated if you must rely on your camcorder's auto focus, particularly if you will be using props.
Other camcorder features that are not as critical but still very helpful include; manual control of audio levels, phantom power for external mics and smooth zooming capability. Also, having a second camcorder available for closeups and cut-aways will give you much more flexibility when editing. Position this camcorder about 45 degrees to either side of your main camcorder. If space permits, set up your camcorder just a little above the height of your talent's head and far enough away that you are not on your camcorder's widest focal setting. This will help prevent subject distortion near the frame edges. If this is your only camcorder, keep any movement to a minimum. If you must get closer at some point, it is better to stop that take, zoom in, focus, and begin a new take. Cutting to the closeup will provide a much cleaner transition than trying to unlock your tripod head, take control of the camcorder, and zoom in all the in same take.
Your tripod legs and head should be stable and smooth enough to tilt and pan without any jerkiness. Try to avoid operating the tripod at its full extension, as this is usually less stable. The decision to use a wired or wireless microphone is less important than ensuring that you have good cables and batteries always at the ready. That means backups too! A lapel type mic is easiest one to use, as it doesn't require a boom operator. Just be sure not to position it up too high, as you may experience dramatic volume changes if your talent turns away from the camera. If you will have two or more people on the set at one time, an audio mixer also becomes necessary.
The only equipment category where you may find you are a little short is lighting. Traditional three-point lighting is by no means the norm or even necessary for all vidcasts, but it still provides you with the most flexibility. Start by setting up your main or key light a little left or right of and above your main camera position. Try using a medium-sized softbox or umbrella to soften the shadows. Your fill light should be closer to your main camcorder but positioned on the opposite side. This light should be larger than your key to avoid introducing secondary shadows. If you decide to use a third light, use it as a rim or hair light above and to the rear of your talent. You can use additional lights to throw patterns on your background or to highlight set features.
Quiet on the Set
You've now got your set in place, your crew in their positions and your equipment checked and ready. Are you ready to roll? Well, almost. As the producer, it will be your job to not to fall into the "it's-good-enough-for-the-Internet" syndrome. With the proliferation of video sharing sites, we all have become somewhat numb to the quality gap between "Internet" video and broadcast television. So even though you will be distributing in a reduced resolution online, keep in mind that good set design, camerawork, audio and lighting will be all the more important to help your production rise above the rest.
Contributing editor Brian Peterson is a video production consultant, trainer, and lecturer.
Next Month: Part Three - Editing and Distribution.
You now know how to create a show for the Internet; next month we'll show you how to launch your own vidcast.
Getting a good clean key is critical to making a virtual set look believable. To do this, make sure you have very even lighting on your chromakey background. Video generally uses a green background, but it is more important to use a color that is not in your subject. And, depending on the software you use to knock out the background, you may not even need to use a large backdrop. Various companies make small to large paper and fabric backgrounds ranging in prices from about $40 to $400. If you can spare a wall, special chromakey paint is even available.